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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 4/26/14

The Evolving Business of Education: Perfecting Failure

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Public School

Like a lot of us, I'm always promising myself that "tomorrow" I'll fix "this" or "that," that I'll finally finish some project that has been bubbling and percolating in my overactive imagination, or that I'll even "put my money where my mouth is" and actually try to change something about which I so vehemently complain.  I doubt that anything bothers me more than the enormous amount of resources that we have spent in perfecting the failure of public education.  Having taught grade school many years ago, I can fondly remember the "privileges" that I enjoyed (of which so many of today's teachers have been deprived), both as a public and private school teacher.  I was free, for the most part, to organize my own lesson plans, probably the most daunting task in the confused mind of a brand new teacher, in those days, at least.  While a few teachers would order their entire prepackaged lesson plan from publishers Harcourt, World and Brace, Inc., still others chose to sweat over their lesson plans for weeks before the start of classes, putting together ambitious multi-media curricula.  These included books, overhead projections, outside laboratory projects for science classes, and even practical applications for math such as measuring angles and deriving equations with rulers and strings like the old Greeks did.

While some teachers were to be found, nearly every day, feet propped up on their desks, answering students' questions by revealing to them on which pages in their Harcourt World and Brace Inc. booklets they might find their precious information, others were busy actually explaining the meaning of the answers.  Luckily for me and my students, I chose to emulate my friend and mentor, Barbara Grosz, who had encouraged me to become a teacher in the first place.  As soon as the initial trepidation had worn off, I became a virtual fanatic (much like Barbara), constantly searching for new ways to interest my students in their subject matter.  To my amazement, after a while it wasn't difficult at all because my young students (initially 7th, 8th, and 9th graders) began to excitedly suggest one project after another!

After one semester, everything was going smoothly, except for one new class that I was given, supposedly as a reward for my unexpected early "success."  The "eighth-grade" class was made up of various students who had already failed eighth grade the year before.  The thought was, that with a young "gung ho!" male teacher in a relatively small class setting miraculously inspiring discipline, there was no way these misunderstood young men could fail 8th grade again!   My head swollen with the success of my other students, I, like Governor Jeb Bush, honestly believed that I could teach just about anyone as long as the class size was small enough.  Try as I did, however, I still had to flunk three or four of my charges.  As I gave each one of them the sad news, however, each one assured me that I need not worry because under the state's official policy, students could only fail the same grade once.  After being told by my principal that I would have to pass these students, even though they had not even attempted to study, he and I soon agreed to part company.

Just as frustrating was the fact that there were teachers who were unbelievably adept at teaching literally hundreds of children in one auditorium with more success than I (than most teachers, in fact) could teach a class of twelve or fifteen students.  We had one or two of those teachers in the school, but they were paid no more than other teachers.  In fact, they, like their colleagues, were usually forced to find work as waiters or waitresses at a nearby restaurant after school to make ends meet.

Ironically, looking back after more than forty years, the incident that I remember most fondly is probably the most damning of all the many recollections that I have of the irrationality of standardized testing.  On the first day of class, I was introduced to two seventh graders, both beautiful, polite young men.  I was told that they were mentally deficient, with Intelligence quotients in the 40 to 60 range.  The I.Q.s were "verified" by printed tests and shown to me by the school.  I was to design special daily programs for these two students, including drawings, letters of the alphabet, and anything else their limited intelligence could tolerate.  The first boy was cheerfully "adopted" by the class, everyone volunteering to help him with his "assignments."  With the class' help, his presence was actually a delight for him and all of us.  The other boy was also a delight, because with the help of the rest of the class, he proved to be a slightly above-average student with a normal I.Q.  We even taught him that the "secret" of taking otherwise useless standardized tests is not to form a pretty "Christmas tree" design just because you have trouble reading the questions or you've had a bad day!

Private School

After parting with my former principal, my credentials still intact, again thanks to my mentor, Barbara, I began my new job, teaching 3rd-, 4th-, and 5th-grade students in a private school in South Florida.  Yes, you're correct if you think private schools are different from public schools.  No, Jeb, we were both wrong about the class size.  They're usually the same size as they are in the public schools, yet they usually seem to produce better results.  It seems that it usually costs less for a student to matriculate through the private-school system than it does to survive the same time in public school.  Of course, virtually everyone involved in the school is actually in the school almost every day instead of partying at the opulent Board of Education building or arguing over which new (liberal and conservative alike) harebrained schemes they can miraculously substitute in place of legitimate educational concepts that have already been proven successful.

Another strange feature found in most private primary and secondary schools is that they wouldn't dream of having some 2500-3,000 students in the same grade school or high school.  Believe it or not, it really does make a difference if the principal has some vague idea about what is happening on both sides of his campus at a given time.  It's not small classes we need, Jeb, but smaller schools!  In the end, teaching in private school was just as exciting as public school, except that the students had to actually pass!  My kids scored a few grades higher than they were "supposed to" on their state tests just as most of my public-school students had done, apparently, as a result of all that time they were "forced" to spend reading assignments aloud in class no matter how much they hated to.  In fact, under the state's intellectually challenged standardized testing (one of those lucrative "harebrained schemes" meant to replace the real job of education), a number of students were considered to have I.Q.s much higher than their actual intelligence quotients.  It's damned amazing what a few students who actually know how to read can get away with!

Public Schools vs. Private Schools

It seems obvious to me, after teaching young medical students for the past 32 years, that teaching young adults is much easier than teaching children.  The adults, as I first found out many years ago while teaching junior college and graduate students, don't have to be entertained as long as the material is understandable.  "Boring and clear" is fine with them.  Kids have to be entertained, however, and their attention has to be earned.  With a few slugs in the legal profession exploiting the schools for new sources of revenue by looking for ways to punish even reasonable discipline, teachers are already behind the eight ball, so to speak.  Worse, however, is the concerted attempt by an entire political party to exploit school children for profit!  If I were a religious person, I would certainly call that "evil."  Exploiting the elderly, the disabled, the poor, the unemployed, that's "bad," but making extra profit off of helpless children, come on Jeb, don't you think it's time to have a little talk with your conservative friends?  Your poor Dad, the one who agonized over every decision he made as president whether right or wrong, would never have approved of paying the Pearson Company more than 250 million dollars per year to administer "sub" standardized tests and many more millions for inadequate texts and computer programs.  He wouldn't think of bringing in Michelle Rhee, corporate education's most famous concubine and official consultant for the monetary exploitation of students, so she and Rick Scott could officially blame everything on the teachers!

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Dr. Allen Finkelstein, writing since 2006 under the penname “O’finky,” was born in New York, where he attended the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County as a boy. He continued his religious training in South Florida until his family, (more...)

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